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Crisis line calls soar as coronavirus spreads


It is Thursday afternoon and Deb Turner, director of the Finger Lakes region’s crisis hotline, is swamped with calls. This is her new reality in the age of COVID-19.

“People’s anxieties are just up, not just with what’s happening right now, but what it’s going to look like in the next few months,” Turner said.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, call volumes at 211 Life Line have spiked. On an average day, Turner explained, the line fields between 200 and 300 calls a day. A day earlier, there were 500 calls. Turner described that number as typical since the pandemic.

The line fields calls for all sorts of crises, from guidance on financial services to mental health. Life Line is part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and while the bulk of the calls are related to food relief right now, the suicide calls have been climbing steadily, Turner said. She predicted a flurry of suicide calls in coming weeks as the weight of unemployment, social isolation, and general uncertainty bear down further.

“We’re going to see waves, so right now we’re seeing the wave of people trying to prepare for being out of work, trying to prepare for having kids at home or working remotely,” Turner said. “We’re anticipating another wave a few weeks from now, and can envision this affecting everyone’s well-being.”

Turner points to a myriad of issues, like not being able to see a therapist in a traditional way, as exacerbating mental health issues in the community. While COVID-19 is uncharted territory for many, the crisis hotline universe has some precedent.

Lessons from Hong Kong

In 2003, as the SARS epidemic peaked in Hong Kong, the suicide rate hit 18.8 per 100,000, the highest point in 40 years, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention. At that same time, unemployment hit 7.86 percent, also the highest point in recent history.

For perpsective, New York had a suicide rate last year of 8.4 per 100,000, according to the United Health Foundation.

Hong Kong is not a direct guide, but it may be an omen, said Eric Caine, co-director of the Center for the Study of Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“The biggest lesson from Hong Kong was that most of the suicides were of working age people in the workforce,” Caine said. “It really made the point of the economic impact of a thing like this can be tremendous.”

On Thursday, the federal Labor Department reported that a record 3.3 million people, including 80,334 New Yorkers, filed for unemployment benefits the previous week. The previous record was set in October 1982, when 695,000 new jobless claims were filed.

In Caine’s view, the $2 trillion stimulus package winding its way through Congress, which would provide a $1,200 check to most taxpayers and an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, is as much a public health bill as it is an economic one.

“These efforts could have a very positive public health effect in terms of mental health,” Caine said. “Because people won’t feel as much that their financial backs are to the wall and there’s no way out.”

Isolation and seniors

Statistics on senior suicide in Hong Kong during SARS suggest a dire need for resources in COVID-19-era America. During the SARS epidemic, the suicide rate for people over the age of 65 was almost double that of the general population, at 37.46 per 100,000.

“One of the things that was really clear (in Hong Kong during the coronavirus outbreak is) they were making very instrumental efforts to reach out to isolated elders, because of what they learned before,” Caine said.

At Lifespan of Greater Rochester, a nonprofit that provides services and guidance to seniors and caregivers, president and CEO Ann Marie Cook said she expects senior suicide to climb as the pandemic worsens.

“It’s a huge problem for older adults who live in the community to be isolated in general,” Cook said. “You add on this pandemic and then say, for their own safety they can’t go out of their house, it exponentially makes the problem more difficult.”

Lifespan works with a variety of senior communities, and while Cook is concerned for all of them, it is the seniors living on their own she most worries about. A 2017 study from the federal Department of Health and Human Services found that 20 percent of people over 65 live alone. Women over 75 were the highest demographic, at 45 percent.

“People in nursing homes are experiencing loneliness, but at least there’s people walking the halls, the nurses and staff still there,” Cook said. “It’s the seniors that live alone that we really worry about and try to reach out to, because they are already so easily isolated.”

Physical distancing, not social distancing

The phrase “social distancing” has been drilled into the American vernacular over the past three weeks. But some specialists in the mental health community see it as a misnomer.

Becky Stoll is the crisis services division chair at the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), one of the national accrediting organizations for 211. She also serves on the steering committee for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“Let’s talk about it as physical distancing,” Stoll said. “It’s not social distancing at all, we need to be doing just the opposite.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Melanie Funchess, director of community engagement and family support at the Mental Health Association of Rochester.

“What we have is we have each other,” Funchess said. “My neighbor across the street, we did this before all of this, he sits on his porch, I sit on mine and we’ll have a full conversation.”

Funchess reiterates a point that we’re all in this together and that no one is truly alone if millions of people are struggling. The key now is looking out for each other, she said.

To that end, Stoll spent a day going through her phone book alphabetically, reaching out to each person to see how they were coping. Caine keeps a “connections list” of people to dial up and check in on, and encourages others to do the same.

“We’re lucky to live in a time where we have access to social media, when we can have conversations face to face over a computer,” Caine said. “Imagine if this happened in the 1980s, it would be a whole different thing.”

People caring for the most vulnerable segments of the population are racing to find ways to help them connect to society through the pandemic. At Lifespan, Cook is working to introduce new technology, like Facetime, to seniors while also rolling out a letter-writing program.

At 211, workers are preparing for a barrage of crisis calls over the next few weeks. Turner and Mary Boland, vice president of communications at Goodwill of the Finger Lakes, have been in discussion on what’s to come at the hotline.

“Next week, the calls are going to be different, because people are still out of work, and there will be housing matters,” Boland said. “And that will spiral down into the real mental health concerns and crisis.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at [email protected].